THE BLOG
09/29/2015 01:06 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

Macedonian Filmmaker Revives Memory of Earlier Refugees

The Balkan Republic of Macedonia, with two million residents, has a slender profile in world affairs. Although it went through a bruising internal political struggle earlier this year, as the months passed by, it has made international news only as a way station for the refugee flood from the Middle East, via Greece to its south and Serbia to its north, heading for Austria, Germany, and Sweden.

Macedonia has an older refugee history, which has been carefully and beautifully reconstructed by a domestic filmmaker. That chronicle involves the Sephardim. These were Spanish and Portuguese Jews expelled from their homes in the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 15th century and resettled in the dominions, at that time, of the Ottoman sultan: Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia, along with Turkey.

Sephardic Jews founded large communities in the Turkish, Bosnian and Serbian cities and towns, as well as in Macedonia. Under the Islamic system in place, they were administered as a distinct "millet" or "nation," with their own institutions. Their legal identity perpetuated their Spanish-Portuguese language, known as "Judeo-Spanish" or "Ladino."

But the Hispanic language of the Ottoman Sephardim has long been treated widely as a lost artifact of world culture, preserved today only by a few speakers in Turkey, Israel, and here and there around the world.

From 1913 to 1941 Macedonia was "liberated" from the Ottomans, and occupied mainly by Serbia, with other parts taken by Bulgaria and Greece. It was included in monarchist Yugoslavia when the latter was founded after World War I. Nearly all the Macedonian Sephardim - 7,000 or 90 percent - were annihilated in the Holocaust, as Macedonia was occupied by Bulgaria. Aligned with Berlin during World War II, Bulgaria shielded its own Jewish citizens - about 50,000 people - but handed the Macedonian Jews over to the Germans, who exterminated them. A half millennium of Muslim protection, and its immediate aftermath, ended.

Macedonia remained part of socialist Yugoslavia from 1944, when the Germans withdrew, until 1991. The republic was permitted by Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević to leave Yugoslavia peacefully, unlike Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Macedonian filmmaker Darko Mitrevski produced and directed a movie released in 2012, titled The Third Half. It was entered into the competition for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2013 Academy Awards, but did not gain a final nomination. Otherwise, its outstanding aspect might be the involvement of the international film star Rade Šerbedžija, born in Croatia of Serbian descent, playing a powerful Sephardic banker, Don Rafael Cohen, in the Macedonian metropolis of Skopje before and during World War II.

The Third Half, having missed its chance at global acclaim three years ago, remains a moving and relevant film, not only because Macedonia is once again a crossroads for refugees, but because much of its dialogue is in the Judeo-Spanish language (with Macedonian and English subtitles), accompanied by Sephardic songs. Most was filmed in the numerous parts of the country untouched by modernization, lending credibility to it.

The film's title is derived from the proposition that while a European football match has two halves, there is a third half expressive of the personalities of the teams, the fans, and their sponsors. It portrays the Macedonia Football Club, which is saturated with anti-Serbian feeling.

Macedonia F.C. is owned by Dimitrija, a Macedonian nationalist played by Mitko Apostolovski, who despises the Serbs but has a global vision for European football. He also admires the Hitler regime in Germany, and brings a renowned German coach to improve the chances of the club. The German is named Rudolf Spitz in the film and is played by Richard Sammel, a German actor who has been directed by Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds) and appeared in the 2006 remake of the James Bond picture Casino Royale. Spitz imposes a Prussian discipline on the team, to their considerable resentment.

The team's lead player, resembling a young Sylvester Stallone, is named Kosta, with the role taken by the Macedonian actor Saško Kocev. One half of the film is a love story, with the football player, who is an Orthodox Christian, falling in love with Rebecca Cohen, daughter of the Jewish banker. The Macedonian model Katarina Ivanovska performs marvelously as the Jewish girl.

The second half of the film, we might say, is the story of the team. The "third" begins with the Bulgarian invasion of Macedonia. Political and ethnic differences condemn outsiders like the Jews and Roma (who are a prominent minority in Macedonia) to death. In that regard The Third Half has a great deal to say about the current migration crisis in the Middle East, the eastern Mediterranean, and Central Europe. The film has more than one surprise: first, the German coach Spitz turns out to be a fugitive Jew. The Germans and Bulgarian define a Macedonian Jew as anyone of Jewish origin, as well as Jews married to Christians, their children, and the seldom-mentioned children of marriages between Balkan Muslims and Jews.

As is predictable, and hardly a spoiler here, Kosta and Rebecca elope, and because he is Christian, they escape to America where she lives a long life. The film glosses over her ostracism from the Skopje Jewish community for running away with a Christian, but endurance is paramount. The Third Half is dedicated to Neta Koen, who fled with a Macedonian Christian footballer and survived the Holocaust.

While Balkan and Central European citizens - including Macedonians - observe the desperate attempts of refugees coming from Turkey and Libya in search of rescue, it is worthwhile that they be reminded more directly of the moral consequences of abandoning victims of war and terrorism. The Third Half contributes significantly to that lesson.